Sunday, April 29, 2018

#GIFcon18 - Building Droughtworld

This is part one of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Hi all! And thank you so much for having me out. Before we get started, I just wanna say… y’all got ALL the purdy words. Makes my skull-meats all tingly :)

It’s been such a rare treat to get to hear your work over these last couple of days, and I have to confess that I’m a little nervous – you are an awfully hard act to follow. But I’ll try to string my corn-fed gruntings and hillbilly ululations together into something entertaining, at least. I’d like us to have a thought about the fantasy and the Western genres, and what relationship they have – but after that, I have a proposition for you. A quest, if you will, to use your excellent words to take what we talk about in the next few minutes and do something new with it.

So this is me, and these are my books. I grew up in Texas, Dallas specifically, which you can see as the biggest bright spot just below dead-center of this map here.

Can you see the difference between the eastern and the western halves of the US? It's really something, isn’t it? So while I didn’t grow up in the West per se, I’ve lived in a place that’s sort of at the edge of the light – and as fantasy enthusiasts, you know very well how many exciting things can happen there.

Anyway, so I grew up in Dallas, but most of my extended family lived in Houston, which is about four hours drive, and in Albuquerque, which is about twelve. I am here to tell you that that is a looooong time in the car when you’re a little kid. And most of it looks like this.

I mean, it’s not all boring. There’s lots to see on the road...

...and those gas stations have all KINDS of fun treasures.

Anyway, so I got a lot of reading done on those car trips, and it was fantasy from top to bottom. By and by, around my junior year of high school, I had a great idea. “I’m gonna write me a book!”

And I did.

And it was ANIME.

But that was all right. I kept revising and refining, starting over, trying out new ideas, and had a great time. But even after I’d gotten fairly decent at things like characters and dialogue, I kept hitting this wall with the setting. I kept trying to write what I’d always read – which was to say, a vaguely European medieval nowhere – and it kept dissolving into a pile of generic mush. I wasn’t excited about it, but I didn’t know what else to do.

So it was around that time, after college, when my roommate brought home a copy of True Grit. Have any of you read or seen this?

Let me back up and say that I had never paid much attention to Westerns before. I thought they were all about stubbly-jawed white guys putting bullets in their problems, and since that was never going to be me, I never gave them a second look. Plus, you might have heard the stereotype about how Westerns are basically romances for men. I mean, think about it. They’re shamelessly unrealistic. The traditional gender roles are dialed up to 11. At the end, the guy gets the girl. And you know how you can tell they’re men’s books? Cuz at the end, he leaves :)

Anyway, but here was True Grit – the story of Mattie Ross, a14-year-old farm girl from Yell County, Arkansas, who’s going to risk everything to track down and bring to justice the hired man who murdered her father, because nobody else cares.

And y’all, that was a revelation for me. Look at her. This is not a spunky princess going out for an adventure. This is a squishy little hobbit-person who has NO business being out in the big wide world, and no way out but through. And that was when it hit me, y’all. That was when I realized that Westerns are for EVERYONE.

And I thought – hang on, why am I trying to write Europe? I’m not from Europe. I’m from Texas. For us, ‘Yurp’ is one syllable. Why don’t I write an American epic fantasy – one set in my own back yard? Hell yeah! That’ll be great! Let’s do it!

…guys. Have you LOOKED at American History? Oh my grits. That is some grim stuff. And it’s a hard thing to wrestle with, too. On the one hand, it’s so special to belong to a truly exceptional place, a country that was founded on an idea… but on the other hand, there is no part of my country that we didn’t take from somebody else. That is a hard circle to square. In some ways, it feels like we are both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, and I wanted so much to bring that feeling front and center to my work.

So I started seriously looking at Westerns, because it’s the quintessentially ‘American’ genre. And I thought hard about what it meant to write about my country.

I didn’t feel it was responsible to write any so-called American story that did not include a representative variety of Americans, or failed to confront the violence and cultural warfare of our history head-on. But I also didn’t want to contribute to the volume of Dances With Wolves nonsense – “oh, and then the native people all quietly packed off to a reservation and disappeared, isn’t that sad.” It’s not good writing, and more importantly, it’s not true. There are over 500 federally-recognized tribes today! They are still here, despite what this jackass author would have you believe.

So, all right – we’ll have the war, but make it come out differently. Make it more of a stalemate, have the native people actually fight to a standstill and take some of their land back from the settlers.

Good, yes. But how? By what means? And the obvious answer that I reached for was the fantasy answer: well, the native peoples can fight back because they have magic, and the settlers don’t.

But that didn’t sit quite right, because it falls back into the old toxic stereotypes – that native people are either more or less than human, that they’re innately different from us ‘regular folks’, more connected to the earth, and so on and so forth. And so I really had to think hard and ask: what, historically, did indigenous Americans have that Europeans didn’t?

I found the answer in New Mexico, actually. Have any of you heard of the Acoma Sky City? It is a really special place – the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. It’s a little town sitting on top of a mesa just west of the Sandia Mountains, and it has been there since the 1100s.

The Acoma people still live there, and on the land down at the foot of the mesa – unconquered, unmoved, unbroken. They have changed significantly since European contact, but much of that change has been on their own terms.

And that was it, y’all. That was when the light bulb went on… which was ironic, since there’s no electricity up there. In MY American fantasy land, magic power comes from cultural continuity. The more you eat the way your ancestors ate, live on their land, speak their language, and worship in their traditions, the more potent your magic is – and it is specific to your people. 

So over here are the Washchaw, the bear people, tremendously tall and strong and powerful – as long as they live according to their clan laws. If you belong to the Ant-Watching clan, you have a sacred obligation to protect the small and the weak, and you may not have any contact with the dead. And over here are the Ten-Maia, the people of the corn, the geomancers whose harvest-drums can actually crack open the earth… and over here working in the silver mine is Ah Che, who is losing his magic, because when you are Ten-Maia, you are not supposed to be burrowing into the ground like a greedy little parasite. And over here are the coyote people, who celebrate a variety of gender-fluid identities, and the crow people, who definitely do not. And here are the telepaths, and here are the necromancers, and here are the house-guards, and here is where the astronomers used to be, but we don’t like to talk about what happened to them.

All right, so. Magic power comes from cultural continuity. But there is more than one kind of cultural continuity, right? So actually, some of the settlers do have some of their old-world magic – the wealthy ones who have been living on the family estate or plantation for two hundred years, who know all their begats and can trace their genealogy back twenty generations and are tremendously proud of their magical pedigree. And even the ordinary folks who don’t have any of that might have just a little unexplainable spark of something – a little knack for mending, maybe, or a bit of a way with animals.

And finally, there is Día – a fire-bending science nun, and one of my favorite characters. She is the child of escaped slaves. She has no idea who her grandparents were, or where her parents came from. But she has taken the faith she was raised with to heart, and become a grave bride – a consecrated woman, who has dedicated her life to studying the mysteries of creation and burying the unclaimed dead. And through her faith, she is POWERFUL. At one point we see her walking barefoot through the desert, leaving smoking footprints behind her, knowing that she could start a wildfire that would burn the whole place to ash.

So, all right. Maybe your continuity comes from your family. Maybe it comes from your faith. Maybe it comes from your profession – you know, if a first-rate blacksmith takes you on as his apprentice, and it’s through studying with him that you begin to inherit his power and become a steelbender, or what-have-you.

And so in a world where power comes from continuity, we can use magic to look at the questions that we wrestle with today. How much continuity – how much orthodoxy – can you accumulate before it becomes stagnation, or oppression? If you’ve been cut off from your ancestral past, how and to what extent can you reconnect with it? If you were lucky enough to make it through the cataclysm, how much of your old ways can you afford to keep in this new world, and when is it heroic (not selfish) to willingly give up your own power in order to try or do something new? Those are the things that I really enjoy thinking about, and I find that fantasy provides a terrific medium for exploring them.

Part 2: The Fantasy of the West -->

1 comment:

  1. My only beef was that you didn't talk about brisket at all... :-D Heidi (we talked about Oedipus Tex and landscapes)